Inside the NFL | AFC Anomalies: Ravens and Pats have serious problems to address
Published: Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 10:09
After Week 2 of the NFL season, the primary storyline that has emerged is the inconsistent play of many of the perennial powerhouses in the AFC. Specifically, the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots, traditionally two of the strongest teams in the conference and AFC Championship contenders for the past two seasons, have struggled due to glaring weaknesses in the fundamental makeup of each team.
Many NFL analysts expected the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens to start slowly as a result of significant turnover in core personnel on the defensive side of the ball.
The most significant departure was 13-time Pro-Bowler, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and unquestioned team leader Ray Lewis, who announced his retirement in the week leading up to Baltimore’s Wild Card playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts.
To replace Lewis, the Ravens signed veteran middle linebacker Daryl Smith, who spent nine seasons with Jacksonville and is the Jaguars’ all-time leader in tackles. The Ravens also drafted rookie middle linebacker Arthur Brown out of Kansas St. in the second round to fill in for Dannell Ellerbe, who was signed by the Miami Dolphins during the offseason.
But the Ravens lost more than just Lewis and Ellerbe on defense. Safety Ed Reed signed with the Houston Texans and was replaced by Michael Huff, who struggled as a cornerback with the Oakland Raiders but excelled as a safety at the University of Texas. Defensive end Paul Kruger, strong safety Bernard Pollard and cornerback Cary Williams also moved on to Cleveland, Tennessee and Philadelphia, respectively.
It was clear that the defense, with six new starters, had yet to gel when the Ravens were torched in Week 1 by Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Manning threw for 462 yards and seven touchdowns as Denver avenged its loss to the Ravens in the playoffs last season with a convincing 49-27 win.
Meanwhile, despite a 2-0 start, the New England Patriots have clearly been hurt by numerous key departures on offense. Over the last several years, New England has been nearly unbeatable when quarterback Tom Brady has had a strong stable of skill players whom he feels comfortable including in the offensive game plan.
But this season, the Patriots have been without almost all of Brady’s favorite targets from a year ago. Wide receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch, tight end Aaron Hernandez and running back Danny Woodhead departed during the offseason. Additionally, tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Shane Vereen have been sidelined with injuries. Those losses collectively account for 5,131 all-purpose yards and 37 touchdowns from last season.
In their place, the Patriots brought in Danny Amendola, a journeyman wide receiver out of Texas Tech, who may need surgery for a groin injury that he aggravated in Week 1 against Buffalo. Special teams star Matthew Slater was also expected to play more as a wide receiver, but he has a broken wrist and is expected to be out for at least four weeks.
Wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have shown the ability to get open, but each has dropped passes in key situations. Brady, notoriously one of the most demanding quarterbacks in the league, simply will not throw the ball to receivers who cannot consistently catch it.
In Week 2 against the Jets, New England struggled to produce a consistent offensive threat as Brady threw for only 185 yards in an ugly 13-10 win at home. The Patriots are now left to hope for a speedy recovery from their injured offensive skill players and continued strong play from wide receiver Julian Edelman, who caught 13 passes for 78 yards against New York and appears to be the only receiver Brady is targeting on a consistent basis.
With the struggles of Baltimore and New England, the Denver Broncos appear to be by far the strongest team in the AFC. Denver throttled the Ravens in Week 1 and went on the road to convincingly beat the New York Giants, 41-23, in the Manning Bowl in Week 2.
At 37 years old, Peyton Manning still looks like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and has quickly incorporated free agent signing Wes Welker into what was already one of the league’s most potent offenses. Defensively, the Broncos are serviceable, which will be more than enough if the offense continues to average 463 yards and 45 points per game.
Baltimore and New England, despite early season struggles, will likely make the playoffs and may even still be considered division favorites. Often in the NFL, one hot streak is all it takes to make the playoffs, as was the case with the Ravens last year who started strong but limped into the playoffs with a 10-6 regular season record.
With that in mind, it is not time for the Ravens and Patriots to panic, but both teams need to immediately address glaring issues that may hinder their success.